Review by Wendy Jones Nakanishi
This short story collection by Suzanne Kamata, an American expatriate in Japan, consists of twelve tales on topics ranging from unhappy marriages to unfulfilled dreams, in locations ranging from America to Australia, from Cuba to Paris to Japan. But it is Japan that occupies the most prominent role in the stories, both as a subject and as a place. Like her novel Losing Kei (2008) and stories that appear in anthologies she has edited—The Broken Bridge (1997), Love You to Pieces (2008) and Call Me Okaasan (2009)—in The Beautiful One Has Come (Wyatt-MacKenzie, 2011), Kamata seems to draw upon personal experience in depicting the charms, mysteries and aggravations the country poses for its long-term foreign population.
If, as it is asserted, writing is a form of self-revelation, this is particularly true of Kamata’s narratives, which often seem autobiographical, especially her stories depicting marriages between Japanese men and western women and the experience of parenting a disabled child. These accounts are poignant and sometimes almost unbearably moving. We feel as though we are eavesdropping on a private conversation in, for example, Polishing the Halo, when the narrator’s husband, a Japanese baseball coach, remarks, on learning that his baby daughter has been found to be deaf, that he never imagined he would be the father of a handicapped child.
But Kamata can convincingly transcend the purely personal. In several of the stories, including the one whose title is adopted for this short story collection, she successfully inhabits the mind of a Japanese character. The narrator of The Beautiful One Has Come is a young Japanese girl who observes with bemusement an older sister so obsessed with the Egyptian queen Nefertiti that she abandons family, home and country to study at a university in Cairo. The heroine of Woman Blossoming is a self-effacing Japanese artist who is content to allow her work to be attributed to a wastrel husband who achieves posthumous fame thanks to her labors. The Rain in Katoomba is a haunting tale of a Japanese woman who is reminded of her pre-war romance with an Australian when, post-war, he comes knocking at her door, bringing food for her starving family and, less agreeably, memories of past happiness.
Certain themes run through Kamata’s work like a refrain, or like the insistent pulse of life itself. These include the agonies and ecstasies of parenthood, with both its pleasures and its pains exacerbated for the fathers and mothers of disabled children. Kamata is also skilled at portraying the messy compromises entailed in personal relationships, especially those involving couples of different nationalities, and she is good at outlining the difficulties experienced by adventurous spirits who dare to venture from the familiar and the safe by settling in a country such as Japan that can seem profoundly foreign to its non-native inhabitants.
Kamata’s characters often experience disillusionment or despair or they are forced to abandon their dreams. The Japanese woman who idolizes Nefertiti returns to Japan to settle for a conventional marriage; the talented artist whose work has made her husband famous resigns herself to an obscure existence in which she is known only as a great man’s widow; the young Japanese girl who dreamed of marrying her Australian boyfriend is condemned, after a brief period of joyful courtship, to a life of suffering alleviated by minor pleasures and, ironically, only recovers the bliss she once enjoyed when, as an old woman, senility immures her in a past in which she loves and is loved by him once more.
But Kamata’s heroines—and all the main characters in her stories are women—are strong-minded and capable, able not only to survive but also to thrive in the bleakest of circumstances. They are often assisted in this enterprise by their friendships, often with other women. Kamata’s protagonists are adept at playing the cards dealt them by fate. They find fulfillment in accepting a compromised form of happiness. They are admirable women who wrest victory from the jaws of defeat.